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High Speed Photography
High Speed Photography - Technical notes


The photography of fast-moving objects is undeniably a rather technical undertaking and relies heavily on somewhat specialised electronics. It comes as a considerable surprise, therefore, to learn that high speed imaging is almost as old as photography itself.

In 1839 H.W.Fox Talbot recorded his first image with an exposure of several hours. Just four years later Daguerre introduced practical photography to an astonished public. In 1851, just 13 years after the very first photograph was taken, Fox Talbot used light from an electric spark to freeze movement with an exposure of ten millionths of a second.

High-speed Photography

High-speed Photography involves significant problems that must be overcome to capture images of very fast-moving subjects. Whether it is birds or insects in flight, or bursts, breaks or splashes these problems may be considered under several headings.


The simplest way to photographically freeze movement is to illuminate the action with a very short pulse of light from an electronic flash unit or strobe. Although it is possible to obtain flash durations as short as 1/50,000 second from some modern units, this reduction in duration is usually at the expense of light output. For most pictorial high-speed photography, flash durations between 1/10,000 and 1/50,000 second are usually appropriate. A light output in the region of 180 watt seconds (joules) is highly desirable. It is usually required to illuminate a scene with more than one light source, but in the case of animals, special care must be taken to avoid multiple highlights in the subject's eye if the image is to appear natural. Exposure settings can be established quite accurately even at very short durations using Minolta meters. However, it may be necessary to use colour correction filters over the light sources as very short duration xenon flash produces a rather blue light.


Barn Owl in flighIf a very brief artificial light source is used on the main subject, it follows that any visible background must be similarly illuminated. Because the background area is so much greater than the subject, the inverse square law usually necessitates using a separately illuminated artificial background, although digital techniques and computer software can provide an alternative solution to the problems of background illumination. Nocturnal subjects such as owls present no such difficulties.

If the action to be photographed can occur in darkness, then the camera plays a relatively unimportant role. In the absence of ambient light the shutter can be opened prior to the event and closed at leisure afterwards. This means, of course, that shutter speed plays no role.

However, many wildlife events such as birds or butterflies in flight can only take place in daylight. In these situations it is of paramount importance to select an appropriate camera. What is involved in such a selection?

All cameras take time for the shutter to open fully, a delay that is increased further by the time taken for the mirror in reflex cameras to move out of the light path. Modern 35mm cameras take about one tenth of a second to respond, while large and medium format cameras require considerably longer. In the world of stop-motion photography such delays are wholly unacceptable because the subject will have long since left the field of view by the time the scene is finally recorded.

Rolleiflex 6000/8000 series medium format cameras are ideal as it is possible for to access the inner electronics and reduce the delay to 1 or 2 milliseconds. This is only possible because of the very sophisticated shutter mechanism incorporated into Rollei lenses.

A further consideration in selecting cameras for high-speed applications is the ease with which test shots can be made. In the past a Polaroid back could be attached for making test shots but nowadays digital equipment provides an easier alternative when setting up the system.


Because the events to be photographed occur so rapidly, it is necessary to detect them automatically. While it is possible to use electronic sound and vibration sensors in some situations, most often the interruption of narrow infra red light beams is more practical.

To ensure that unpredictable action is properly positioned in frame and also in focus, two intersecting beams can be used. As a further refinement, a third (gated) beam can be used to make certain that the subject is moving in the proper direction. This, for example, eliminates wasted shots of the back end of retreating animals.


When multiple beams are used, special electronics are required to process the incoming signals. It is also necessary in some situations to introduce a short, but precise, delay into the response. Once again, special electronics are required to handle these requirements.
High Speed Photography & Photonics -Editor - Sidney F. Ray

Publisher:SPIE Society of Photo-Optical Instrumentation Engineers ISBN: 0819445274

Electronic Flash, Strobe -Harold E. Edgerton

Publisher: MIT Press, Cambridge, (1983)
ISBN: 0262550148

Perhaps one of the most useful books available to learn the basic theories and construction of High-Speed Flash. It includes the theory of the electronic flash lamp; Spectral output of flash lamps; Circuits for electronic flash equipment; Electronic flash lighting requirements for photography; Equipment (single flash); Equipment for short exposure time; Exposure calculations and special photography; Techniques of light measurement; Specialized applications, and much more. A must for the constructor of his own flash/strobe equipment.
Schlieren and Shadowgraph Techniques: Visualizing Phenomena in Transparent Media - G.S. Settles

Publisher: Springer-Verlag Berlin & Heidelberg GmbH & Co.
ISBN: 3540661557

Schlieren and shadowgraph techniques are basic and valuable tools in many photographic, scientific and engineering disciplines. They allow us to see the invisible: the optical in-homogeneities in transparent media like air, water, and glass that otherwise cause only ghostly distortions of the normal image. The book is intended as a practical guide for those who want to use these methods, as well as a resource for a broad range of disciplines where scientific visualization is important. The book is comprehensive, well arranged, very informative and instructive to the topics. This publication records in detail all the tried and tested methods that are well illustrated by photographs and diagrams. Instructions for making a "do it yourself" Schlieren equipment, are given.
Stopping Time: The Photographs of Harold Edgerton - Editors - Estelle Jussim & Gus Kayafas

Publisher: Abrams, New York, (1987)
ISBN: 0810927179

Stopping Time" features the work of Harold Edgerton (1903-1990), the inventor of electronic flash. Besides allowing fast-motion processes to be captured in sharp images it also enabled multiple exposures to appear on the same photograph for the first time. Edgerton's photographs - although of often everyday events, are not only revealing but also have a beauty of their own. The book gives many ideas for anyone interested in high-speed flash to try for themselves like balloons bursting or glass shattering or Edgerton's famous masterpiece of a milk drop shortly after impact with a red saucer.
Moments of Vision: Stroboscopic Revolution in Photography -Editors: Harold E. Edgerton & James R. Killian

Publisher: MIT Press, Cambridge, (1985)
ISBN: 0262550105

Harold Edgerton's remarkable achievements in stroboscopy and electronic flash photography are covered and explained in this book along with a good explanation of the technology of stroboscopic flash equipment.
A study of splashes: Including his 1894 lecture: The splash of a drop and allied phenomena -A. M. Worthington

Publisher: Macmillan, NY, (1963)

The scientific study of splashes by Worthington and described in this long out-of-print book provides a very useful basis for anyone wishing to photograph the many different phenomena of splashes. It is often difficult to find so take the opportunity to purchase when the chance arises.
Secret Visions: Twenty Five Years of Nature Photography - Stephen Dalton

Publisher: Salem House, Topsfield, MA, (1988)
ISBN: 0881623180

Secret Worlds -Stephen Dalton

Publisher: Firefly Books, (2003)
ISBN: 1552978060

Stephen Dalton is especially known for his pioneering achievements in high-speed natural history photography.This book shows many full-colour pictures of the birds, insects and mammals. It shows how the photographer's evolving technical & creative talents have captured many animals in motion and often beautiful surroundings but also includes the difficulties he has found in the field.
Split Second: The World of High Speed Photography -Stephen Dalton

Publisher: Salem House, Salem, NH, (1984)
ISBN: 0881620637

Borne on the Wind: Extraordinary World of Insects in Flight -Stephen Dalton, Editor: John Kings

Publisher: E.P. Dutton & Co., NY, USA (1975)Publisher: Chatto & Windus, UK ISBN: 0701121300

This book inspires any wildlife photographer to try his hand at high-speed photography. Stephen Dalton’s ideas stimulate attempts to reproduce his pictures and help others to expand
Electronic Flash (The Kodak Workshop Series)- Lester Lefkowitz

Publisher: Eastman Kodak, Rochester, (1986)
ISBN: 0879853727
How to select and use Electronic Flash – James Bailey

Publisher: HP Books, Tucson, (1983)
ISBN: 0895861445

Recommended Websites

Professor Andrew Davidhazy
Well worthy of viewing is Professor Andrew Davidhazy’s exhibit of High Speed, Schlieren and Photoinstrumentation Photographs on his website
If you wish to view his birds in flight photography go to: This page also has some useful technical information including simple sensing techniques and circuitry.

He can be contacted at:

Imaging and Photographic Technology
Rochester Institute of Technology
70 Lomb Memorial Drive
Rochester, NY 14623, USA
Tel: (585) 475-2592,
Fax: (585) 475-7750

Loren M. Winters of the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics, Durham, NC has developed an excellent High-speed Flash Photography webpage devoted to amateurs but also very useful to the experienced photographer.
Go to: <>
Some of his student’s photographs can be seen at: <>
Also well worthy of viewing is his school’s website at: <>

Loren Winters has another website providing very useful information and inspiration especially for students, teachers and hobbyists <>

Loren Winters can be contacted at: <>

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